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Signs of War - Lviv

by David Elley, "per ardua ad astra"

Two Tuesdays ago, tired, struggling to carry my packs with two freshly dislocated fingers in my left hand, I made it to my Hostel in central Lviv. Even at 8pm, I could feel my excitement at finally making my goal of six months ago. And my road to get here was much harder than I care to relate here.

Lviv, the nexus of three empires, now one of the great cities of one of the oppressed peoples of one of those empires. Lviv, the birthplace of the concepts of "Genocide" and "Crimes against humanity". Lviv, the stories it wanted to tell me, flowing through the narrow streets I walked that first night. But a city at war?

That first morning, my air raid app went off, the calm tones of Mark Hamill dispensing wisdom as I looked outside. I heard the siren in the distance, but the people continued walking carefully through the layers of ice and snow on Svobody Road. I moved my laptop to the common area, the "two-walls" solution. No other sign of war.

I spend my days at the Lviv Volunteer Kitchen now. I have watched the concentration on task, for hour after hour of the local people in the peeling room. Most of these people have sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, either fighting now, or who had already fought and lost their fight. But I will never ask anything of them. I belong to them now, all of them, for they have welcomed me to their kitchen. They are a sign of war.

As I walk the old city most evenings, seeking a better bowl of borscht than the night before, I begin to notice things. A mural of a soldier and his wife, the Latinsky Cathedral, just steps from my hostel, the stained-glass windows boarded up, the statues wrapped in tarpaulin and caged in wire against missile debris. Further from me, the Chapel of the Three Saints, likewise protected. A sign of war.

Deep in a packed Mano's Bar, Saturday night. I noticed a short, intense-looking man, paying attention to one of our volunteer friends as she waited for the bathroom. I caught a glance of her concern which came my way, so I joined her. She turned to me and started a conversation, while the soldier struggled to make more than his point about being from Kherson and to check her out. I considered afterwards I had done something more dangerous than in a pub back home, but oh well, I have little common sense. The bathroom emptied, the volunteer rushed in and the young soldier, who needed something much more than either of us could offer him, walked away. A sign of war.

This past Sunday, my first in Lviv. The weather was bright and cool. Soldiers in ones and twos, some with sweethearts and other with children walked around in uniform. I followed a soldier dad and daughter. She was maybe four years old, bright coat and ponytail. She held his hand as they came out of a shop of brightly coloured pottery and gifts. Once, she lost sight of him, and I recognized the brief fear in her as she ran back to him. I thought of my own grown daughter, now the only person for years now, who holds my hand or puts her arm in mine.

Today, walking to the LVK in the cold rain, the morning sky hanging heavy like a shroud. A convoy of cars and two ambulances, with Ukraine flags on one side, black and red flags on the other side approach. Their sirens and stately pace made it obvious. I stopped after a few seconds and I stood next to a lady who held her hand to her face and bowed slightly, a memory or a thought of someone far away? A sign of war.

While walking the Svobody Road esplanade after LVK on Sunday, I stopped and watched older locals sing folk songs with an accordionist. They finished with the national anthem. I am always reminded of seeing 500,000 people sing it in the Maidan in 2013, chills still run down me when I think of it.

I came upon a girl, playing folk songs on her guitar. As I listened, I recalled seeing a YouTube video of two girls, Khrystyna Spitsyna and 19-year-old Svitlana Siemieykina who were killed during their open air concert in Zaporizhzhia last Summer. And then that memory, taken from someone's YouTube, became my memory of an early Sunday evening in Lviv, on the esplanade near the Lviv Opera House. Tears started falling from my eyes as I watched this one Lviv girl sing her heart out and play her music. All of them, Krystyna, Svitlana, this girl in Lviv, the little girl with her ponytail, and bright coat, all of them could be my daughter. And so, this new memory has become my first.... my own first sign of war.


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